The Woman Upstairs
- Claire Messud
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- May 8, 2013
In yet another tour de force novel, the award-winning author poses questions about life, love and the meaning of art.
Nora Eldridge once dreamed of being an artist. She hoped for a glamorous life with foreign travel. Instead she has become the woman upstairs: single, tidy and all but invisible. She has given up artistic endeavors to work as an elementary school teacher. In Eliot’s words she has “measured out her life in coffee spoons,” and this makes her angry and terribly sad. No one sees or suspects her anger. They only see the mask of quiet femininity.
But everything changes when Reza Shahid, a captivating child newly arrived from Paris, joins Nora’s class. When a few older boys bully him and call him a terrorist, Nora befriends his parents and is soon drawn into their lives. Reza’s father Skandar is a Lebanese historian teaching at Harvard. His mother Sirena is an up and coming Italian installation artist. In this meticulous and thoroughly engaging novel, Messud traces Nora’s relationship and eventual obsession with the Shahids and poses provocative and cruelly pointed questions about life, love and the meaning of art.
Nora feels she has missed out on the larger questions, which the Shahids have answered so well. “You can’t succeed in life unless you get good at it,” she explains. “There’s no point writing the world’s best answer to the first question on the test, if you don’t then leave yourself enough time to write any answers at all to the other questions. You still fail the test. And I worry, in my bleaker hours, that this is what I’ve done. I answered the dutiful daughter questions really well; I was aware of doing only a so-so job on the grown-up career front, but I didn’t really care, because there were two big exam questions I wanted to be sure I answered fully: the question of art, and the question of love.”
Some friendships draw us closer to the person we want to be. This is true of Nora’s friendship with the Shahids, as well as with her best friend Didi, whose view on Nora’s involvement with Sirena gives Messud a different angle on the story. The novel also covers Nora’s relationship with her mother, who once nicknamed her Mouse, her father, and her maiden aunt – the kind of person Nora refuses to become.
As a novel about obsessive love and friendships forged with those we wish to be like, The Woman Upstairs is absolutely satisfying. But it goes much further, becoming a reflection on small and detailed worldviews versus large and generous ones. This is exemplified when Nora and Sirena go in on studio space together. Sirena gets busy on a large-scale work entitled “Wonderland,” an installation that invites people to explore and be themselves. Meanwhile Nora constructs miniature dioramas. Painstakingly detailed in execution, they must nevertheless be viewed through tiny peepholes. At one point Nora compares her work to her friend Didi’s daughter’s little house underneath a table.
“I was happy to be in Lili’s hidden lair - more than happy, I was honored,” she says. “But after a few minutes I wanted to get out of it. I wanted to lift the blanket and climb back into the room and stretch my limbs and leave the dollies and their crumbs and their thimble-cups of cold tea (with milk, if you please) behind, and go back to my grown-up friends and their conversation. For fifteen of the twenty minutes I stayed in there, I was humoring her.”
Absorbed though she is in the tiny world of her dioramas, Nora ultimately finds them constrictive. Her place in life is smaller, less celebrated and joyful than that of the highly acclaimed and well-connected Sirena. “Even as I filed and measured and glued, I thought: What are these images, even? They aren’t new. They don’t as Pound so wanted, make it new. A magpie cobbling, they don’t owe anything to my own efforts. Or rather: given how labor-intensive my efforts were, my failure of effort was something bigger, somehow more grandiose, a failure that I could sense, like a blind person, but couldn’t properly identify.”
Messud also touches on the relationship Americans have with foreign culture, and the American versus European worldview. As in The Last Life, another beautifully realized first person narrative, Messud reflects on the mask of being American, and the way that foreigners appear to Americans with no context or layers to their cultural identity. Nora loves the Shahids’ foreignness without fully understanding it. She only knows they represent a life she wants to be part of, one she put off for more sensible choices. In a recent essay in Granta, Messud explored Beirut from her own American perspective. In The Woman Upstairs she takes up the Lebanese perspective on America in the talks Nora enjoys with Skandar as they walk through Cambridge.
But is a careful and narrow work of art necessarily constricted in its exploration of the human condition? Like Jane Austen, etching her scrimshaw world in miniature, Messud’s novel is deeply satisfying for its keen detail and insight. And herein lies a paradox. While her best selling novel The Emperor’s Children had more exuberance and scope, The Woman Upstairs is a more scrupulous and ultimately more satisfying read. In the end, this novel sheds light on ambitions so large they must tolerate ethical smallness. The Woman Upstairs may not end up enjoying the mass-market appeal of The Emperor’s Children, but it is every bit as deep and beautifully realized, and shows Claire Messud at her best.
Amanda Holmes Duffy’s most recent short story appears in the current issue of Northern Virginia Review. She blogs at irrelevanceofhope.blogspot.com.